Some 7 000 Crus, or growths, spread out on more than 100 000 ha (about 250 000 acres), may call for some explaining for the amateur.
First of all, there is a difference between « classification » and « appellation ».
The 57 appellations in the Bordeaux wines belong to three large groups of AOC (appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) which define the production area. These AOC also ensure that the consumer is guaranteed a product of high quality and a strong personality.
Note that the appellation area is both exclusive and strictly defined ; the vineyards must stand within that area for the wine to deserve the AOC.
There are “regional” appellations, corresponding to the administrative boundaries of the département : red Bordeaux, white Bordeaux, rosé Bordeaux ,Clairet Bordeaux, according to controlled production methods, also red or white Bordeaux Supérieur.
Then you find the “sub-regional” appellations, evocative of a land like Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, Médoc or a canton like Côtes de Blaye.
Some owners prefer a more individual approach, hence the “local” appellations bearing the names of the producing villages, such as Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Sauternes, Barsac, Pomerol, or Saint-Emilion. But this latter appellation covers several villages.
After some legislation and a few changes, the July 1935 decree led to the creation of INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine); this Institute, in agreement with the winegrowers’ syndicates
, defines the conditions of production for the various appellations, the grape varieties, the cultivation method, plantation density, yield, alcoholic strength...
Of recent years, further changes occurred within the AOC, with the new appellation of « Saint-Emilion » and « Saint-Emilion Grand Cru » in 1984, as well as the « Pessac-Léognan » appellation in 1987.
The 1855 classification
Before talking about the various classes of Bordeaux wines, let us note that there is no classification of
the various AOC in relation to one another, but only a classification within a sub-region or even a single appellation.
Also, specifications determining wine classification are both many and subjective. Many, as they cover the intrinsic quality of the wine, the actual vintage, the Cru’s fame, the estate’s renown, etc...; subjective like the wine tasting; thus existing classification is often contested.
For the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, Emperor Napoleon III ordered Wine Brokers from Bordeaux to define a classification system for the best Bordeaux wines. The wines were officially ranked according to quality of production, thus creating a hierarchy between the various vintages. Of course this has a direct influence on châteaux’ fame and their financial value. 5 categories are created for red wines (first, second, third, fourth and fifth Growths or Premier, Second, Troisième, Quatrième and Cinquième Crus Classés) and 3 categories for white liquoreux (Premier and Second Crus Classés, as well as Premier Cru Supérieur).
Note that Pomerol wines are not part of any classification.
Classification of Graves
Established in 1953 and modified in 1959 by INAO, this classification covers 16 Growths distinguished either for the red wine or for the dry white, sometimes both. Today, the Pessac-Léognan appellation covers the entire production of Graves Crus Classés.
Classsification of Saint-Emilion
There are two AOC appellations for Saint-Emilion : Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. The Wine Growers’ syndicate requested and INAO agreed to a subdivision in the latter class thus creating Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé (by decree of 1954). The last update was in 2006.
Classification of Médoc
This 1855 classification, updated in 1973, counts 60 Crus Classés, with the addition of Crus Bourgeois and Crus Artisans.
Cru Bourgeois dates from the 17th century ; the name was given to the production of the Bordeaux bourgeois of the time who had planted vineyards in the Médoc area.
This category was officially recognised in 1932 to promote outstanding wines that were not included among Crus Classés. It was launched anew in 1962 with the creation of the Médoc Crus Bourgeois syndicate; this established an official classification (by special decree in 2000) updated in 2003.
There are three categories : Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel.
Classification of Crus Artisans concerns small estates (Crus Bourgeois estates must spread over at least 7 hectares), grouped within the Médoc Crus Artisans syndicate. This category has been officially recognised in 1994.
Classification of the Liquoreux
Sauternes and Barsac too are classified since 1855. At present there are 1 Premier Cru Supérieur, 11 Premiers Crus, and 14 Seconds Crus.